Where “Why” Is Taking B2B: How purpose transformed one B2B category leader

Dave McLaughlin – VP of Marketing for Clarke

Dave McLaughlin, VP of Marketing, Clarke, with Bob Domenz, CEO, Avenue

What is a purpose-driven company—not in its much-discussed theory, but in practice?  It’s been a decade since Simon Sinek prodded us all to “Start with Why.”  But after all the Ted talks, workshops, blog posts and branding projects, where exactly is why going? What difference is it really making? And how?

At the recent ContentJam conference, we caught up with someone who actually knows the answers to those questions, from years of experience: Dave McLaughlin, B2B Brand Council member and VP of Marketing for Clarke, the environmental products and solutions company.

In 2008, Lyell Clarke, CEO of the organization, initiated a fundamental shift in direction, from product-driven to purpose-driven, from a provider of traditional mosquito abatement chemicals and services to a company that uses environmentally-friendly products to help “make communities around the world more livable, safe and comfortable.”

To make the shift, Clarke collaborated with Avenue, the marketing strategy and activation firm run by B2B Brand Council Executive Director Bob Domenz–so we’ll let Bob ask how all their strategic work together has played out for Clarke in real life.

Bob Domenz:
Dave, how do you define purpose for the Clarke brand?

Dave McLaughlin:
Purpose is sometimes treated as a separate definition from brand – with Clarke, though, they are really one in the same, and that’s what drives us.

When the brand is its purpose you have a clearer definition of where you need to go and how. So, as an example, when we think of any piece of content—I don’t care if it’s a piece of literature, a blog post, a PowerPoint presentation, maybe a quick set of PR messaging that we need to give to sales representative in the field—we begin first by thinking of what’s that tone, what’s the overarching theme that we want to give to the audience, to the public, to the customer.

“When the brand is its purpose you have a clearer definition of where you need to go and how.”

For us it’s one of stewardship, it’s one of being very genuine and true to our desire to better the industry. It’s not just about Clarke—it’s about caring for the industry, it’s about the job that we feel we have to do and what we owe to them. So it really drives that tone and feeling that we put behind our words.

So what have you observed as the impact of purpose on the Clarke brand over the years?

First, a little bit of the back story for your readers. In 2008, when we went through our rebranding process, we shifted everything that we did—internally, externally, day-to-day functions to new product research and development—and we started looking at it through a lens of sustainability.

And our definition was created by, was defined by, all the employees. It wasn’t just handed down from a CEO or the executive team. When Lyell Clarke, the CEO told us all, “You will define sustainability for Clarke,” he meant it.

When you put the definition of purpose in the hands of employees it becomes something altogether different. Our definition of sustainability became very broad; it encompassed the health and wellbeing of the employees as well as social outreach…and of course, true sustainability around the types of products and services that we offer.

When you put the definition of purpose in the hands of employees it becomes something altogether different.

When that happened it gave everyone in the company a greater sense of responsibility—not only for Clarke but also for the jobs each of us did. It didn’t matter if you were in accounting or product development, if you were in the field supporting a customer, or if you were doing marketing. Everyone had a more common focus.

Over time, we just kept raising the bar for ourselves. We understood that we could do more and suddenly the purpose just became a part of us. And that has been the fun cultural shift to see happen.

Often, with strategic shifts in corporate life, there’s a big initial wave of excitement—but how do you keep it going, how do keep it fresh. Or do you?

You do have to keep it fresh. There’s really one key thing, one key tool that we’ve used to do that. In 2012, we held our first appreciative inquiry.

It’s a process by which you look at your strengths and you build forward from those. You don’t try to look backwards and fix things that you think are broken or not working as well as they should. It’s about looking at the company as a whole and where could we go, what’s possible.

We did that in 2012 and it gave us a great set of very forward-pressing initiatives. It caused us to go outside of our comfort zone and to work in areas of social responsibility and new product development that we’d not gone into before.

By the end of 2015 we could see a little bit of slowdown in activity and internal interest in those goals, simply because we had accomplished what we set out to do. Then, in February of 2016, we held our second appreciative inquiry. Now we have an entirely new set of initiatives that will take us to another level. And I guess that’s really what’s keeps it fresh for us.

You’ve described the impact on existing employees—has it affected hiring, and growing the company with new talent?

It has. I go back to that cultural shift in 2008 when we started doing things very purposefully through that lens of sustainability. As we shifted, people came to see us differently—especially the younger new hires, the ones that want to work in a place where they know they have a voice, where they know they can have an impact of some sort. That’s what happens when you put purpose in the hands of all, rather than trying create it from a mandated set of projects or initiatives.

It has made hiring really quite easy–and the quality of individual that comes into Clarke today is markedly different than it was 10 years ago. It’s a joy to see people come on board who you know are better than you, because it will make us all better in the process.

For more on purpose and the Clarke story, read “Millennials and The New Push for Purpose,” by B2B Brand Council member Rachel Klein, in Brand Quarterly.

About Dave McLaughlin: Dave is the VP of Marketing for Clarke. He is responsible for brand management, public relations, product launch and all other marketing related projects and initiatives.

About Bob Domenz: Bob is CEO of Avenue, the B2B marketing strategy and activation firm. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the B2B Brand Council.